Business as Usual at Defense

Sunday was official Reservists Day, the day when Israel and the security establishment applauds the country's reserve soldiers.

In honor of the occasion, the Defense Ministry toiled over a new reserve duty bill and submitted it to the government and the Knesset Ministerial Committee on Legislation for approval.

The bill defines the status of reservists for the first time and raises the remuneration they receive for serving their country - surely a respectable way of expressing appreciation to reservists.

Respectable, until one discovers that the government and the security establishment had another - much more respectable - method of treating reservists. This method is based on the report by the Committee for Reserve Duty Reform, which submitted its conclusions in 2005.

Then defense minister Shaul Mofaz appointed that committee, which was headed by Prof. (and now Knesset member) Avishay Braverman and included then deputy chief of staff Dan Halutz, treasury Director General Joseph Bachar, Major General (Res.) Shlomo Yanai and David Brodet.  
The committee's eight-page report and recommendations stated a few simple and fundamental principles:

"Reserve soldiers shall be called up for reserve duty only in emergency situations and for training and exercise purposes for such situations. In other situations, reservists shall not play any role in ongoing defense missions or other missions relating to the army's day-to-day needs."

In keeping with this basic principle, the committee recommended limiting reserve duty days to just 14 per year, which would be used, as stated, for readiness exercises. The committee proposed a solution for meeting the army's clear needs in the defense sphere - mainly operations in the territories:

"The shortfall in manpower needs for ongoing defense purposes," states the report, "could be met by alternatives such as a 'short-term career army,' Border Guard companies, emergency assignments for career soldiers, altering the operating model and routine security measures missions."

The second principle the committee set touched on a more equitable calculation of payment for reserve duty days, such as the accurate counting of reserve duty days on weekends and additional payment for reserve duty days beyond the annual ceiling of 14 days (instead of the current 26 days). As a result, reserve duty based on the Braverman Report would become much more expensive, costing NIS 250 million a year. On the other hand, the committee economized on reserve duty days, such that this expensive resource is not being used wastefully and not for non-emergency purposes.

The cost of the committee's recommendations, therefore, was estimated at zero. It was a rare win-win: the state wouldn't pay more, the reservists would miss less work, reserve duty would be more meaningful and the remuneration more generous.

Looking at the big picture, however, the one element that seems to be getting shortchanged is the army, at whose doorstep the committee placed the responsibility of finding a permanent solution to ongoing security needs in the territories.

The army would have to establish designated companies or find other creative solutions for operations in the territories.

In retrospect, after faults were found with the preparation of reservists during the Second Lebanon War, there is no doubt that the Braverman Committee's recommendations are all the more valid. The determination that reserve soldiers should serve only to fulfill emergency needs is the correct reading of the true need for these soldiers, and also the best way to divide the burden among Israeli society, since only a limited number of soldiers actually serve as reservists and there is no room for unnecessarily burdening them with humiliating service in the territories.

The Braverman Committee's insight and vision, however, stopped short when it reached the army. This past Sunday, nine months after the Second Lebanon War, the army approved the bill submitted by the Defense Ministry. That bill does not limit reserve duty to 14 days a year, mainly because it does not proscribe the assignment of reserve soldiers to defense operations in the territories. As a result, the annual budgetary cost of the bill is estimated at NIS 400 million.

As far as the Defense Ministry is concerned, the Braverman Committee might never have existed, nor the conclusions from the war, and likewise the cries of the reserve soldiers who are fed up with bearing an unequal share of the burden. It's business as usual at the Defense Ministry, and the precious reserve soldiers will continue to serve ongoing security needs in the territories, paid for by additional budgets allocated by the government.

"The Braverman Committee's recommendations were no longer relevant in the reality following the war," responded Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh. "The war proved that the standing army must have training exercises, and in order to facilitate such training, reservists are needed to replace units assigned to ongoing security measures operations. Even the reserve commanders say operational missions are necessary to maintain the reserve soldiers' preparedness. Yes, this costs a lot of money, because an army that trains more, costs more."